Indeed this is the question that epitomizes the entire play turned movie Doubt in which Phillip Seymour Hoffman and Meryl Streep turn in Oscar worthy performances of a priest and nun at odds with one another over the possible molestation of a Catholic School's first black student by the priest himself.
The beauty of this movie is that as all good stories go--it is the characters themselves that draw the viewers in and make the entire production a thrilling and vivid whodunit adventure.
The play is set in 1964 which is a strange year for Catholics. Kennedy was just assassinated and the winds of change have been blowing in the Catholic Church's Second Vatican Council. They play makes no apologies for using the wind as a symbol throughout and placing change as a sideline debate between said priest and nun.
Streep plays Sr Aloysious who is a dour old school crank who keeps the children of the Catholic School living in fear of her but at times, shows glimmers of condolence. A second nun, Sr James seems like a naive woman who accepts the priests explanation of trying to protect the boy from a minor transgression as an alibi for the accusation of sexual abuse. It is here that we find that nearly everything is upside-down. Sr Aloysious is hoping to keep the church's winds of change at bay but is also tied down from having Fr Flynn removed because she holds no power as a woman to bring forth an accusation to her superiors who will most likely not find her credible. At the same time, the simple-minded Sr James is open to ideas of a "more welcoming church" but is naive of the ways of the world and the mere possibility that Fr Flynn might indeed be a predator ("Isn't it easier to just believe him?" Sr Aloysious asks her). Fr Flynn is looking to bring the church into a new time but then paradoxically uses the church's hierarchical structure to defend himself and even to try to gain some psychological advantages (he enters Sr Aloysious's office and sits in her chair at one point and threatens to recommend to the pastor that she be removed as principal).
The mere simplicity of easy answers brings Doubt to what we all think of the characters make-up. Is the priest guilty or is the crotchety nun just harboring a grudge, cranky that her church is changing without her?
I would've loved to see this play but I think the movie does a good job of staying true to the play's make up. Shanley directed it after all, so there's not much of a surprise there. I did read the play after seeing the movie and it does seem more suited for the stage. However, catch this movie and become enraptured by two great performances and shake hands with the winds of change that will blow your convictions all over the theatre.
Your humble blogger is Mike Hayes, a well-known expert in the world of young adult ministry (20s and 30s) in the Catholic Church. Mike is the author of Googling God (Paulist, 2007) where he explores both the chaotic world that young people live in and their religious reactions to that world. He also explores the age of instant gratification and how churches can respond to the needs of the young adult age by using technology alongside more traditional ministry methods.
Mike founded the award winning BustedHalo.com® in 2001 and continues to contribute to it as the editor of their catechetical section appropriately named Googling God.
Recently, he left BustedHalo® to focus on more direct ministry with young people at St Joseph University Parish as a Campus Minister for the South Campus at the University at Buffalo.
He has only two loves: his adorable wife, Marion and a nine pound chihuahua named Haze, who still find him amusing enough to let them live in their home.